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Fleet Scarcity Amidst an Abundance of Challenges

April 1, 2014
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

The U.S. Navy must pare its assets to meet budgetary limitations while facing a broader mission set.

The rise of new global flashpoints along with a strategic rebalancing are presenting the U.S. Navy with a new set of challenges and obligations concurrent with significant force reductions. The sum of the budget cuts would be enough to tax the service under any circumstances, but they are being implemented against a backdrop of a broader mission set and increased activities by potential foes.

As always, technology will be called on to play a significant role in helping a military do more with fewer resources. Breakthrough advances will join existing information technology assets to empower capabilities shared by few forces, if any. But again, all the advantages brought by exploiting capabilities such as cyberspace could be negated by adversaries seeking to undermine the Navy’s overwhelming technological supremacy.

These points dominated discussions at West 2014, co-sponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute and held February 11-13 in San Diego. High-ranking military and civilian officials from the sea services discussed the global challenges they are facing along with potential solutions.

The relationship between innovative technology and operations was demonstrated on the first day by Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., USN, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Adm. Harris began his keynote luncheon speech wearing a Google Glass headset, which was provided by the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) at his request and used as a teleprompter. Adm. Harris took off the Google Glass partway into his speech and employed a tablet device for his notes. Later, he put down the tablet and read from paper notes, which he ultimately tore to pieces near the end of his talk. He said this represented how all technologies could fail, leaving the individual sailor with the task of carrying out the mission.

Accordingly, the admiral cited a need for protecting command and control in a contested environment. A commander should be able to dispatch orders in any situation and then receive a receipt from those to whom he sent the orders, he said.

Adm. Harris lauded Navy shipbuilding plans, saying the Littoral Combat Ship is “an ideal ship for how we are going to be using it.” He cited the new DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer as an example of how technological innovation continued to change the Navy. “If Batman had a ship, it would look like the Zumwalt-class destroyer,” he offered.

Vice Adm. Thomas H. Copeman III, USN, commander, Naval Surface Forces, stated that the future Navy will resemble the existing one to a substantial degree. “The surface fleet we have sitting in the harbor now is the surface fleet we will have 15 to 20 years from now,” he predicted.

The way the Navy can advance its capabilities on existing platforms is by implementing innovative technologies. Admitting that he is concerned about the Navy’s ability “to recapitalize the punch of the surface fleet,” Adm. Copeman called for investments in electromagnetic rail guns and solid state lasers that can replace existing shipboard defense weapons.

Unmanned systems also are in the ascendancy, noted Rear Adm. Robert Hennegan, USN (Ret.), former commander of the Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Command. However, they have grown in popularity so quickly they are beginning to suffer from drawbacks that have plagued other successful systems. He warned that the military risks unintentionally creating information stovepipes among unmanned systems. The admiral called for a common architecture with common software and possibly common sensors. If a common display can be developed for unmanned systems, it would be viewable by personnel in each of the services without requiring any specialized training. He cited a need for “COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] for robots.”

Adm. Mark E. Ferguson, USN, vice chief of naval operations, cited innovation as the greatest need for defeating this and other challenges. He called on industry to work cooperatively with the Navy to explore new technologies and applications.

“The edge we will need will come from innovation,” Adm. Ferguson declared.

Among the areas where the Navy needs innovation are cyber, the electromagnetic spectrum and unmanned autonomous systems with stealth characteristics, both surface and underwater. Electromagnetic railguns and beam weapons for shipboard use could help counter the area denial threat posed by antiship missiles, the admiral offered.

Vice Adm. Ted Branch, USN, the deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance and intelligence, held back little in emphasizing the importance of information and cyber. “Information is a warfighting domain, just like air, sea, land and space,” he declared. “And, being successful there is as important as it is in air, sea, land and space.”

With its advantages, cyberspace also brings hazards. Rear Adm. James Rodman Jr., USN, chief engineer, SPAWAR, warned that the United States no longer can control the virtual realm that it created and then turned over to industry years ago. As a result, the United States no longer has the asymmetric advantage it possessed for many years.

“Can we dominate that artificial world that we created?” he asked.

The Marine Corps needs innovative technologies to help it reach the shore from the sea. Not only does the Corps lack a sufficient number of amphibious ships, its inventory is aging and may not be able to serve new mission requirements.

“Amphibious ships are the Swiss Army Knife of the fleet—we don’t have enough of them right now,” said Gen. James F. Amos, USMC, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. The general called for a new family of connectors, vessels that would be able to ensure transit from the sea to the shore.

“Connectors are really, really important,” he emphasized. “We need connectors that can haul a lot of stuff and can go to high speed; leave a sea base 75 to 80 miles off coast; go 120 miles downrange; and then turn to the shore and dispatch its Marines.”

The Corps is looking to work with industry on developing a new type of connector. These joint high-speed vessels would be brought aboard another ship at sea and then transition into connectors. They would travel at high speed when needed, and then fold up for storage “in some black-bottom ship that can carry 20 of them.”

Christine Fox, acting deputy secretary of defense, said the military must be active in technology and research and development across the spectrum. Decrying the approach of keeping forces at the expense of enablers, she called for more critical and innovative thinking in how to develop technology and how to keep it on the shelf. The United States must make tough and far-sighted choices now, she emphasized.

Fox noted that, over the past 70 years, the U.S. military underwent a drawdown after a war several times. Each of these postwar drawdowns left a disproportionate force with deep cuts in readiness, illustrated by the hollow force of the post-Vietnam 1970s. Rebuilding the force after these deep cuts took substantial sums of money.

Amid all of the proposed technology improvements, one saving grace for the future Navy may be a revamped readiness plan. Adm. William E. Gortney, USN, commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command, described how a new optimized fleet response plan would standardize the readiness cycle and improve efficiencies among disciplines ranging from supply and maintenance to deployment. The new plan is the command’s response to the challenge of doing more with less funding without sacrificing capability or mission obligations.

“We can complain, or we can lead,” the admiral offered. “We’re choosing to lead.”

In the mission area, maintaining international commitments are paramount for the United States to continue its global role, and Afghanistan stands out among those commitments. Gen. John R. Allen, USMC (Ret.), former commander of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), and Adm. James G. Stavridis, USN (Ret.), dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, agreed that the United States must continue its efforts or face losing Afghanistan to the Taliban.

“Often we look at Afghanistan as a photograph, but it’s not—it’s a movie,” Adm. Stavridis said. “I’m cautiously optimistic. The vectors are in the right direction,” he said of its future.

The admiral compared Afghanistan today to Colombia and the Balkans 10 years ago. Each of those two regions were in chaos, but engagement with the United States reversed the several political decline. He believes the United States has a better–than-even chance of achieving that in Afghanistan, but only if it maintains its commitment. “The worst lesson we could draw from Afghanistan is isolationism,” he said. “The worst thing we could do is walk away from this turbulent part of the world.”

In the Asia-Pacific region, the focus is on China and its intentions, which will have major ramifications for the Navy and the Marines. Dr. James R. Holmes, a professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College, warned that China’s small but growing Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) might be able to prevail in an ocean battle with the U.S. Navy. He explained that the PLAN would be facing only a fraction of the entire U.S. Navy if conflict arose between the two. Any fight would occur in waters not far from China, so it could bring shore-based assets—such as aircraft and missiles—to bear against the U.S. fleet. These assets have ranges as far as hundreds of miles, which would put most U.S. naval forces responding to a crisis in the area well within China’s reach.

Holmes noted that China is building a maritime force capable of defeating U.S. forces in that region. “China’s is a maritime strategy, as opposed to a naval strategy, through and through,” he declared.

And China increasingly is demonstrating hostility through its actions and words—especially those words published in open-source publications. Capt. James Fanell, USN, deputy chief of staff, Intelligence and Information Operations, warned that Chinese publications, including some published in English, describe aggressive plans to “restore China to its rightful place” by the middle of this century.

Recent actions by China’s civil maritime organizations have more than validated U.S. concerns about Chinese intentions. For example, the PLAN has stated that it does not coordinate operations with China’s Coast Guard, the captain related. Yet, he noted, that is patently not true, and the Coast Guard has become an instrument of harassment in China’s seaward expansion. China has claimed territory belonging to several nations in the Asia-Pacific region, and its maritime forces are serving as an instrument for exercising those claims.

Ultimately, one solution to the growing tension over China’s territorial claims may lie in the rule of law. Capt. Stuart Bell, USN, deputy assistant judge advocate general (international and operations law), said international law institutions could help resolve many of these disputes before they flare up into violent conflict.

Some countries already are pursuing this option. The Philippines went to international arbitration over territorial claims about reefs, and a ruling may be handed down in 2015. Both the Philippines and Vietnam have done a good job clarifying their territorial claims, he allowed.

For complete coverage, see Event eNews: West 2014.

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